It’s not looking good for Europe’s mission to Mars

Lost contact.
Lost contact.
Image: AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia
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Better luck next time, guys.

A joint European/Russian mission to Mars appears to have failed, after NASA released images showing what looks like a crash site where the Schiaparelli spacecraft was supposed to have landed.

The plan was for Schiaparelli, launched in March this year, to land on Mars Oct. 19 after a six-minute descent slowed by thrusters and a parachute, but the European Space Agency lost contact with the lander before its scheduled touchdown. It now appears that the spacecraft’s thrusters shut off too soon, and the ship crashed. According to the agency website:

Estimates are that Schiaparelli dropped from a height of between 2 and 4 kilometers, therefore impacting at a considerable speed, greater than 300 km/h.

The NASA Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has been circling Mars since blasting off Earth in 2005, transmitted images of the intended landing site. Compared to earlier photos of the same area, two new features have appeared, which the European space agency thinks are the remains of Schiaparelli and its parachute, about a kilometer away.

A pair of before-and-after images taken by NASA on May 29 and Oct. 20. The bright feature in the second image is the parachute used in Schiaparelli’s descent; the fuzzy dark patch about 1 km north of the parachute is the spot where Schiaparelli itself crash landed.
Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Higher resolution photos taken next week may be able to provide more detail.

The goal of the ESA’s “Exomars Programme” is to determine once and for all if there ever was (and if there still is) life on Mars. Schiaparelli was a demonstration vehicle, designed to test to the technology that will land a rover on Mars in 2020.